Saturday, September 26, 2009

Where should a CEO live ?

These days many companies are global. Does it matter where they are based ? Or where their top executives live ? I believe it does.

This post is prompted by the news that HSBC’s Chief Executive, Michael Geoghegan, will relocate from London to Hong Kong. This is a consequence of the fact that the future of the bank will more and more be in China.

In most companies, there is a corporate headquarters. Usually this is a historic accident – the headquarters are where the company originated from , even though its current business may be in completely different places. The CEO and most of the senior management reside in HQ. Sure they travel a lot. But they live in the base.

In the past, this made sense. The top team had to be physically together. Meet often. It doesn’t make sense today. It is much more practical to meet personally at regular intervals , but meet often virtually. That’s the way most companies are run anyway.

Its important for the top team to understand the countries which are most crucial for its operations. And real understanding does not come from travel alone. It often comes from living there. A CEO’s visit to any country is a carefully orchestrated event that gets him to places and see things that everybody wants him to see. There’s no way you can understand China, by alighting at Pudong airport, driving to the Shangri La, having a zillion presentations at the office, meeting two senior government officials, having dinner at the Yongfoo Elite and going back. However many times you do this, you won’t “understand” China.

For a truly global company, its top team must be spread over the major markets it operates in. The major geographies where its operations are. In the last team I was associated with, the top leaders were based in France, Germany, the UK, the US and China. It resulted in some arduous travel, but it achieved an important objective – it was a truly global team.

Its entirely appropriate that the CEO of HSBC resides in Hong Kong. After all its one of those rare “countries” where a commercial bank issues the local currency notes. HSBC issues most of the dollar notes in Hong Kong and one of its employees signs it. In the future the CEO might want to sign them himself. After all how many CEOs can have the satisfaction of taking his wallet out and seeing his signature every time he hands over a dollar bill. It must be the ultimate status symbol.